Using the army to stop communal violence

It’s important to get the right force for the job

The best way to prevent large scale communal violence is prompt, impartial and resolute action on the ground, using force to restrain, contain and deter violent protagonists. Local and state reserve police are ideally suited for this role, provided they are trained, tasked and equipped for the role. Unfortunately, it is these forces that form the weakest link. They are poorly trained, poorly-paid, ill-equipped and worst of all, handicapped by wanton interference by politicians at all levels of their hierarchy. Indeed, it is reasonable to argue that if the police forces can be strengthened and allowed to discharge their duties impartially, the need for new legal instruments to specifically tackle communal violence becomes less salient.

Given the reality of the state of the police, it is routine for paramilitary and army units to be handed the responsibility of securing areas threatened by communal violence. In addition to the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), which has historically been responsible for internal security, the Rapid Action Force (RAF) was carved out of CRPF in 1991, specifically to handle communal violence. In addition to being quick on the scene, the RAF is specially equipped for its intended purpose.

In the most recent outbreak of violence in Vadodara, state and central politicians — for their own reasons — were determined to prevent the situation from getting out of hand. That’s great news. This resolve resulted in CRPF, RAF and even the Border Security Force troops being pressed into service. In all likelihood, this will result in bringing the Vadodara episode to a considerably less bloody end. Especially because, and this is important, the Indian Army was called upon to conduct ‘flag marches’ — where armed soldiers patrol troubled zones in a show of force intended to deter mobs. It is highly unusually for shots to be actually fired. But flag marches usually succeed spectacularly.

Six army columns, comprising of a few hundred soldiers, have been called out to help civil authorities in Vadodara. Four of them, largely from the air defence brigade have been tasked with conducting flag marches. While their introduction will help bring the communal riots to a quick end, the use of the army for yet more domestic duties is a cause for concern. In addition to the immediate opportunity cost — weakening of air defence strength by three columns in a state bordering a nuclear Pakistan — Indian leaders and public opinion has routinely ignored the dangers of putting a fighting force in domestic conflicts in civilian environments. That they are effective is beside the point. Such deployment softens soldiers. Worse, using them time and again allows diminishing returns to kick in. Flag marches work when they are used sparingly. It will be an unfortunate day for India when a local gangster decides to lob a Molotov cocktail at an army jeep. The army has long been sucked into domestic counter-insurgency duties. It should not be allowed to be sucked into communal violence.

This is not an argument against the army’s flag marches in Vadodara. Rather, this is an argument for Indian policymakers to strengthen units like the RAF so that they attain the same reputation and credibility as the army.

8 thoughts on “Using the army to stop communal violence”

  1. Somehow in India, riots of all kind just become mob crime, and government response is limited to preventing further riots and damage. But unless individual people are tried for criminal act, including damage to property and murder, and prosecuted immediately for the same, situation will not change. We have live TV (news) cameras covering riots these days, why can’t they be used as evidence for the guilty among the crowds. If I kill a person, I am murderer, if my whole neighbourhood kills, nobody is responsible!

  2. Nitin,

    In addition to police being ill equipped one can also say that its action is not always above suspicion.


    Modi may be a polemicist, but surely it is a stretch to accuse him of personally masterminding each and every communal flare up.


  3. Army should not be used for internal disturbances, wasn’t it the whole rationale for RR. But there are two problems – RR (AFAIK) is managed by I*S officers, with I*S officers one thing you can be sure of is that it will be mismanaged. Then is this particular case the congressis need to be seen doing some thing about a riot that they may have instigated.

    Then the Modi swipe – what exactly is Modi’s fault in the world? Is it that he was born? Or is it that he is articulate, effective administrator who has been elected twice democratically? Give a break over Godhra, Godhra was a pre-mediated, coordinated attack on India which had very specific objectives, and which unfortunately did succeed beyond the enemies wildest dreams.

  4. Hi all,

    This is not a debate about Modi and Godhra. That is controversy that has been debated over and over again from street corners to parliament. Let’s not waste our energies debating that here.

    This is a discussion about the use of the army in non-combat settings. Given the proclivity of this discussion to veer off-topic, I will to delete any comment that strays from the narrow focus of this discussion.

  5. Nitin, Army flag marches used to be fairly common during riots. I remember growing up in Hyderabad, festival season, Sept-Nov, was also rioting season in the old city and it was fairly common site for Army to flag march. The rioting years stopped only after Congress was routed when Telugu Desam came to power in mid-80s. In any case, I guess I don’t see it as a bad thing especially in this case when a strong statement had to be made early not to repeat the devastating previous riots.

  6. The point i wanted to make was that Modi should have acted fast to control the violence so that the Army wouldn’t have had to called out. I mean with 2003 riots still lingering in peoples minds, it looks bad for the state if still hasn’t learnt any lessons from then and are not able to control violence without calling in the army. Really hurts the his credibility.

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